Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Man of the Year

Mondo Guerra

I’m listening to Rufus Wainwright again and oh, gee. This is a dangerous thing, since the music of my late 90s youth often sounds in retrospect much more sophisticated and mature than anything being made today. I think this has more to do with my age circa 1998—old enough that I was beginning to realize that music could not only sound “cool” but could also communicate important adult themes, but still too young to understand what these were, except maybe wordlessly—than with the quality of the music. I hear “adult themes” today, in the work of artists my own age or a bit older, but it’s the same boring stuff I deal with in my own life. The mystery just isn’t there, yet it persists in a song like “April Fools,” which I still hear as an expression of a much more profound maturity than I can ever know, one so advanced that it can even play at youthful folly without debasing itself. It’s so good I laughed when I heard it again. I’m sure it’s been said before, but Rufus was the Frank O’Hara of ’98, the difference being that O’Hara was a new name in the New York of the 1950s. It’s amazing when the sons of prominent people arrive so fresh on the scene. Remember his Gap commercial?

But this year has a Rufus Wainwright, and if it’s not Owen Pallett then it’s John Grant. I’m surprised and pleased that Mojo magazine has named his Queen of Denmark their album of the year, as it strikes me as one that might’ve been doomed to niche gay album status, a thoroughly ironic, despair-in-your-underwear, redemption and damnation via beautiful men fag blues sort of affair. So that it has such wide rock critic appeal is pretty hopeful. Its classicist bona fides are firmly in place (Grant fronted the orchestral rock band The Czars, and he has the fine nostalgists Midlake backing him here), but the lyrics are sometimes so silly that they almost make a mockery of the 70s piano balladry mode of the songs, e.g. "I feel just like Sigourney Weaver / When she had to kill those aliens / And one guy tried to get them back to the Earth / And she couldn’t believe her ears." The imprecise conversational nature of the words and the grandiosity of the music create a nice tension. And if the British critics can’t relate to Sigourney Weaver, then what I think they must cling to on this album are its admissions of weakness, as on the Nilsson-esque smash “Silver Platter Club”: "I wish that confidence was all you could see in my eyes / Like those interviews in locker rooms with talented sports guys." I tend to think of the British press as a dominant, masculine bunch, but they’re probably as lousy and self-doubting as John Grant, hiding inside their love of records like his, proud of him in his musical world where he can be the strong one.

(Maybe you could say the same thing about all the American critics who love Kanye West and his musical world, but West is still the popular kid to Grant’s last-picked. I pause here to wonder what a comparative analysis of the preferences of today’s British and American music writers might reveal. If we used Mojo’s and Pitchfork’s top ten albums of 2010 as our sample British and American data, respectively, we’d find that somehow, in the age of the internet, hardly anything makes it across the ocean anymore. So long, 1990s.)

Anyway, I like the up-front humanness of Queen of Denmark. I feel myself turning away this year from the dreamy and hazy, the half-formed and half-heard. No more hiding from and/or inside ourselves, let’s aim for the fullest expression of our aliveness! Maybe I’m just following the musical tendencies of Deerhunter (“Helicopter” is a song you can only sing if you’re fully awake), and I certainly haven’t yet put my own tendencies into meaningful practice, except in ranking my year-end favorites. But that’s where I am. And yet I know that lo-fi is always inherently philosophical, a surrender to the gods of impermanence, not just recourse for people who don’t want to try hard enough, and that the digital fuzz on How To Dress Well’s Love Remains is today’s equivalent of analog burble. I’m not sure if How To Dress Well has arrived at the beginning of a new lo-fi movement (to hell with chillwave) or at the end of a decade of R&B genre-melding, or vice versa, or what, but that question is too academic anyway and doesn’t really cut to the heart of the matter, which is that Love Remains, all half-heard 38 minutes of it, is an accurate portrayal of many people’s experiences in love. I don’t find its leagues of digital fuzz nearly as haunting as the ghost trails and forlorn melodies they conceal (the same generally goes for pixelization, the video analogue; there’s just no poetry in it!), but I will admit that the album’s emotional world, even if born of musical philosophers, is convincing.

So I understand Love Remains just enough to realize that what it represents is a significant development in the history of recorded emotion. But I can’t figure out where we’re going with recently lauded tracks like Crystal Castles’ “Not In Love” and Girl Unit’s “Wut,” because I never got music for music’s sake. There’s nothing in these but sound and newness. It seems impossible for anyone to describe either one without relying on some of my least favorite critical shorthand, like “reptilian brain” and “pleasure centers.” I don’t know what these things are, or whether all reptilian brains have the same pleasure centers. That seems unlikely.


Some Came Running (a.k.a. Gosh Frank Sinatra Has A Flat Stomach) is Peyton Place with pure motives and an ending later stolen by Chinatown. There’s no muckraking, no dark secrets suddenly exposed, only the weaknesses of small town people, hidden for a while and then unhidden, rendered not as scandals but as personal problems. At the tragic denouement, I almost expected its inheritor’s climactic “It’s only Chinatown” to be replaced with a solemn, ironic or indifferent uttering of the film’s title, something like, “Some came running; none cared.” Not so, but then it goes one step further, more genius-y, to a cemetery scene that I still can’t get my head around. Why (why!) does the camera single out the characters in that order? Anyway, finally, it’s the rare movie where a woman realizes that she lets her man get away with being a jerk because he’s “interesting,” and, knowing there can be no phony ending where he reforms, she resolves to end it and doesn’t look back! (I don’t think.) Vincente Minnelli is the greatest director of all time.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest is a ticking down of the clock, an inexorable sorting of the good guys from the bad guys that would play out easily even without the participation of the main characters (well, there’s quite a bit of effort involved, but ultimate justice is a foregone conclusion). So we watch and wait, but it’s a good movie because that’s how Lisbeth Salander spends the final hours too. She’s never boring, especially not when you’re her partner in silence.

I couldn’t help but view Inside Job as anything but a story about mental illness.

I couldn’t help but view Temple Grandin as anything but a story about kindness!

I couldn’t help but view Exit Through the Gift Shop as anything but real, and if a hoax an entirely plausible one. The art world doesn’t need satire or fictional character studies of weirdos when it has itself. Our weirdo in this film has a lot of charming psychoses, and some beautiful ones, like his compulsion to film every moment of his life and save the forever-unwatched tapes in boxes. I do that too, with lists and notes, my own version of “life as it happened and as it will never be known again.” Why are we compelled to save anything?

And with that, let me unveil the movies I liked most this dismal-relative-to-most-but-maybe-not-so-bad-after-all year:

Non-fiction: [1] 45365, [2] Exit Through The Gift Shop, [3] Sweetgrass, [4] Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, [5] Restrepo

Non-non-fiction: [1] Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, [2] Greenberg, [3] The Social Network, [4] The Ghost Writer, [5] Life During Wartime, [6] Fish Tank, [7] Winter’s Bone, [8] Mother, [9] Toy Story 3, [10] Shutter Island

Non-non: [4] I’m Still Here

But there are many left to see, including the Coen Bros.’ True Grit. I’ll try to take it on its own terms, but so far I’m filled with nothing but ire from all the reviews that describe the 1969 original as some kind of campy trifle and don’t appreciate it for the heartfelt ode to lesbians and outcasts that it is. I liked it enough to name a blog post after it, and in memory it’s become one of my very favorite movies, so I’ll direct you back there for the time being, and hopefully have more to say when all the facts are in.


When I start reading John Waters’ Role Models (soon), it’ll be the fourth book I’ve read from the publishing year 2010. I’ve collaged the covers of the other three I read (two of these by former teachers of mine) into a single master-book, which I will designate the “book of the year.”

The Age of Innocence is an extraordinary thing, but I find I can read no more than 10 pages per day, probably because it is so rich with motivation. Wharton can trace every action in the novel to the feeling and societal pressure that triggered it, and I’m taking pride in painstakingly following her logic. I’ve gotten finally to the really heavy self-abnegations, when it becomes clear that this is a love story after all, not (as I previously suspected) a story in which a character chooses a mode of existence by choosing a lover.

Where have you been all my life, Peter Bagge? Your Buddy Does Seattle is a veritable comic book anthology of the grunge scene that so captured my imagination many years ago. But maybe it’s best I’ve only just discovered the beflanneled apathetic Buddy Bradley (in a way not so different from Newland Archer, but stuck in a different time and different place), as my younger self could no way have recognized any relation between him and my beloved Nirvana. I was in it for the music back then (case in point: I loved the Singles soundtrack but never saw the movie). So it’s funny now to find myself in the sub-prime of life that Buddy Bradley so perfectly represents, while the music of his era seems so remote. What a reversal!


The trophy looks like this: @~~| (on its side)

Album of the Year (sneak-peek)

When audiences of the 19th century went to a new Beethoven symphony, did they feel despair equal to their sense of beauty, as they witnessed the evidence of so much talent contained within one man that they collectively lacked? _________ too is a work of such genius in all its parts (the singing, the playing, the orchestration, the lyrics) that you might despair, but eventually you have to throw up your hands and realize that we only receive such a gift every so often.

Video of the Year

Deerhunter, “Helicopter"

(The only other ones I remember having seen are Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair,” Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles” and, worst of all, My Darkest Days’ “Porn Star Dancing,” so there wasn’t much competition.)

Album Cover of the Year

Album Title of the Year


(Procedure Club)

To be doomed, that’s a horrible, heavy feeling, but doomed forever… there’s something quietly celebratory about the word “forever,” like taking that doom and making it your own.

Record Label of the Year

Slumberland, and its mp3 generosity.

Arrival of the Year

“Forget the second coming, I need you in the here and now.” (Surfer Blood, “Floating Vibes”)

Fatalist Lyrics that Should be Sung
with a Bit More Conviction of the Year

“Our lips won’t last forever and that’s exactly why I’d rather live in dreams and I’d rather die.” (Wild Nothing, “Live In Dreams”)

1992 of the Year

The Radio Dept. and their Foxbase Alpha moment, “Never Follow Suit.”

Paul Westerberg “I Hate Music” Hall of Fame

“Baby, let’s make music, it’ll make us feel better and worse at the same time.” (Zoo Animal, “Baybee”)

Still to come:
Next Sunday: Macromix 10
Next week: It’s II


I could see The Nutcracker every year for the rest of my life and still never quite figure out what it’s all about. Its wordless narrative is as bewitchingly obscure to me as the best of Jim Woodring, giving me plenty of time to think about such things as: [1] The Nutcracker is best seen from very far away, so that the people become as miniature and toylike as possible. Perhaps movies tend to favor medium shots and close-ups to avoid this effect. [2] Ballet makes more apparent than most art forms the collective mind of humanity. People to write the music, people to play the instruments, people to conduct the players, people to dance to the music, people to make the dancers’ costumes, people to make the sets, etc. And the people aren’t just doing these things out of obligation. In each role there is at least someone who is fulfilling a passion. And a passion fulfilled is only meaningful if every passion is fulfilled, and a full ballet results. [3] What obsessed Tchaikovsky? Simple-minded me likes to imagine he wanted only to write music that men with nice legs might dance to, but who knows what kind of rare and indescribable visions might have moved this man. [4] Sometimes I forget what it’s like to see.


I sometimes feel that our life’s work is only the result of an attempt to make do with whatever set of mental disorders we happen to have. I have some strain of OCD that is linked to my mania for music; it can only be calmed with music, but music also agitates it, with the need for more and more (carefully catalogued) music! So I write reviews. I wish I was compelled to write fiction, but I’m not (except when someone is expecting to read it). I’m only compelled to write reviews and the kinds of things you read here. Actually I don’t know if any of this is true, but I do know that the keywords in the preceding paragraph are relevant to my life.


Ariel Schrag says something amazing in Definition about an older girl she has a crush on, to the effect that since her idea of who this girl is exists only in her head, what it amounts to is being attracted to her own mind. This is an uncommonly wise thing for a person of any age to say, and I think it can be extended to other realms of the mind, in particular: I’ve sometimes felt nostalgic for my own mind. I think about this often in terms of music. The world defined by my listening has always been very small in scope (my bed, my mom’s car, my sister’s room), so most of my memories of songs aren’t really linked to events in my life, but simply to the way my brain processed each song the first time I came to love it. So my nostalgia for songs is self-referential and all within my head. I’d like to believe this is the purest form of music love, since it exists almost entirely without context. But what do I know? I keep to my bed.


Maybe the reason our brains are so scrambled is that all the information that beams down into our laptops from above in areas with wireless signals is really in the air (because really, where else could it be?) and our minds are busy clicking and scrolling and browsing this digital ether even when we’re just sitting eating banana bread.


Aaron said...

did you not see "the kids are all right"? can't think of any other reason that wouldn't be on the top 16

your album of the year is owen pallett, right?

Geoff said...

I did see it, and liked it a lot. I can't remember which parts of it weren't entirely convincing to me, but I think there were a few. To make up for it, I'll link your praise of TKAAR for my (non-existent) readers who might have missed it:


(That wasn't a top 16, really, or else "I'm Still Here" wouldn't have merited inclusion. It benefits from being relegated to its own category, though I will say it was a lot better than the ridiculous moralizing critics made it out to be.)

I guess you'll find out in a couple days about your last question, but I'll just say for now that you're right.